Monday, June 20, 2011

Process of Writing 15: Progress and Touchstones

Writing can be like physical exercise: once you start, you get some momentum, and you want to keep going because of the results you achieve. Once you get the mental muscles going, they like to stay in motion.

I achieved fifteen more pages of new music in final pencil score for the commission this past week, turned them in, received approval, and am moving on now. Next week I have major surgery, which is going to be life-changing, I can only hope for the good, the best, the renewal and rebirth that has been promised, in the long run, although it's going to be worse before it gets better, and it's going to be a long process, and today it frightens me because it feels more like a death than a rebirth. Throughout that medical journey, I must keep writing music, making art, writing an occasional poem or essay, making photographs in my garden. I've learned that writing, creating, making, whatever overall label we want to give it, is one of the best ways to use the excess energy generated by the anxieties (Tantric practices and Ki Aikido, the martial, are both concerned with the redirection of energy from corrosive or destructive forces into positive, creative, and healing purposes.) Fear and anxiety and worry raise a lot of energy, and rather than letting them dominant my mind, I've been taking what I can of them and turning them into the power to clean house, get chores and errands done, and write music.

This last week before the surgery, I know that I can probably write another ten pages of score, at least. Last week, I finished off two pieces, and started three more; one of the new ones, freshly started, presented itself to me fully formed in mind, and writing out the first five pages took barely an hour. I had to break off in order to drive up to Madison to perform a concert, and also to turn in the music for approval. But in that beginning, the rest of the piece was made clear, and will not take long to complete; I need only sit down to write it out, I don't have to think it through from scratch.

I'm writing lots of song lyrics for songs in this overall project, and that seems to use the same muscles (following the exercise analogy) as writing a "pure" poem. So I have not been writing many poems lately, although one or two pops out occasionally. I am sometimes surprised when it happens. Last night a poem was hovering at the edge of my vision, and when I sat down to write something else, the poem just happened, surprising me, and pleasing me. Of course it's part of the Letters series, titled Counting Down and it relates to my life situation right now, an artistic bit of reportage, if you will, although as usual a poem is not a literal press release or journalistic report. A lot of the Letters poems track my medical narrative, and its ups and downs, expeditions and encounters.

Those poem-writing muscles are being used for lyrics, mostly, but like with exercise once the muscles are in tone they produce more than you thought they could, and carry you further. (I hope I'm not stretching the analogy to the breaking point.) It's about momentum: a body in motion tends to stay in motion. So last night a poem wanted to be written, and I had to get it down before I went to bed. Call it creative spillover from a cistern or well that keeps refilling itself.

Lyrics are not "pure" poems because they're meant to be set to music. A lot of songwriters allow slack into their lyrics, therefore, knowing the hook in the melody that exercises (again) the emotions directly can cover any clichés or flaws in the words. The synergy of the words-and-music is what makes the song.

But my models for songwriting, my touchstones, the writers that I turn to as guides for doing what I am doing, who I continue to learn from—none of these writers allowed those slack poetic clichés into their song lyrics. The result is words-and-music taken to a high level, that I aspire to, that probably I won't achieve because most don't. Yet the aspiration can carry you further than you expected; sometimes you find yourself writing at white heat, as though your creative system had jumped up a quantum energy level, and you spill out creative work all over the place. I'm finding this happening to me a lot lately, as I convert that anxiety energy into creative energy.

The other probable element of cause in this scenario is that I have stripped away almost everything from my daily life, for now, that is a distraction. I am focused on two things in life this past week, this coming week, this past month, this coming month or three: my surgery and recovery, and my creative work. Everything else is on the back burner. Nothing else matters. Not one damn thing. I can't deal with other aspects of life till the surgery and recovery are over, so I choose not to give them any time. (Worry about what happens after the recovery, sometime next year, tops that list.) There's nothing I can do about those things right now, anyway. The only thing that I must do during my recovery is continue to write music for the new commission. You can get a lot done when your consciousness is focused down to having to do only one or two things, when there are fewer distractions.

My touchstones for writing lyrics are writers whose work I have come to know well, through constant exposure and repeated listening. Yet I don't think there's a direct influence on what I am writing now, in terms of content or style. What I've learned from them is the attitude, the approach, a way of working that makes deep sense to me, to my process. I'm not interested in imitating their artistic products, but in following in their footsteps in terms of artistic process. Fortunately, I've been writing poetry for a long time, I already have my own voice, and so the lyrics I am writing are coming out in my voice, so far, and not as imitations of my touchstones. When you are a beginning artist, one good way to learn your craft and technique is to imitate the masters; at some point, the beginner moves from imitation to integration, having absorbed the listens, and begins to find their own voice. I found my writing voice some years ago, and though there are always echoes of one's absorbed lessons, what is uniquely your own voice is a synergy and synthesis of all that you are, all your experience, all that you have studied and absorbed, and it becomes a unique and new synthesis. If we aspire and achieve the heights, it is because we have stood on the shoulders of giants.

There is a long Things To Do list for this week, before the surgery. The last few days will be especially intense, including taking some medications and doing other things in preparation. And it will be, for me, horribly early in the day when all this happens. Then I'll have the drive, and the checking in, and everything else. The last hour before surgery begins, when you lie there being hovered over, answering questions, asking questions, getting more drugs put into you, starting the IV and everything else. That will be the time when I most need to practice my meditation and breathing exercises. And when I need to let go and trust. After all, I've hired the best surgical team available for this procedure for myself. It's hard not to take it personally, and worry about it, when it's your own body, but I do know that I am in very good hands medically.

Letting go and trusting. I do that every day when I make art, or write something. The way I work creatively is to let go of my intentions and trust that something good will emerge. Some days I may feel like doing one thing rather than another, and I go with that feeling.

I feel strongly about fallow periods and creative crop rotation. They are an essential and natural part of the creative process, the writing life. I also feel strongly that the writing comes first, editing, judging, and revising come later. My first duty as an artist is just to get out the way, get myself out of the way, so that whatever it is can come through. Sometimes I surprise myself.

I hadn't written a poem in many weeks. I've been focused on song lyrics. But then, suddenly there's a new poem. Surprise! And the form revealed itself, as usual, in the writing.

Sometimes just free writing, like what some teachers call loose writing or morning pages, where you just spew, can loosen things up. it doesn't matter if it's any good. It doesn't matter if we have anything to SAY. The point is just to write, and that seems to get the rest of it going.

I never worry if I never write another poem. Crop rotation. I'll always be making something, art or music or words, whatever, and I have utter faith in that. I also know that there are times when it feels stale, and then I go off and do something different. Papier-maché is a great way, for me, to go off and do something different, because it's simple and easy, and it just sort of seems to happen, things come together during the process.

The truth is, I have more art coming out of me, on a daily basis, than I know what to do with. My biggest challenge, to be blunt, is marketing what I've already made. I make something literally every day. Some days it's a few photos in the garden. Other days it's music, or writing. But literally every day something ends up being made. So I never worry about fallow periods, or running out, or whatever. It's like scratching an itch that needs to be scratched every day.

So the music writing will continue, as soon as my mind is clear again, clear of the anaesthesia, the follow-ups to the surgery, the pain meds, whatever. It could be days or a few weeks. There's no predicting which. I just have to accept that whatever happens is whatever happens.

There is a great similarity between going with the flow in art-making, and going with the flow in life in general. This is one of the things that ties art to life, this similarity. They are really the same thing, of course, since making a life for oneself is just as much a creative act as making art.

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